updated 5/20/2004 7:51:50 PM ET 2004-05-20T23:51:50

The notion of Republican Sen. John McCain as a deus ex machina who would swoop down from the clouds and lead the Democrats to victory over President Bush has been thriving in the hothouse atmosphere of Washington since the spring of 2002 when three Democratic journalists peddled the idea that McCain ought to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Media speculation about McCain serving as John Kerry's running mate indicates that some Democrats are hoping a charismatic sidekick can rescue Kerry from his own shortcomings as a candidate.

In the end, however, if Iraq continues to be plagued by violence, it may not matter who Kerry’s running mate is.

There is growing plausibility to the argument that Kerry need do or say little between now and Nov. 2 in order for Bush to lose. A credible Kerry debate performance in October might suffice.

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According to former Bill Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg and former Clinton advocate James Carville, Bush “is more likely to lose than win. Public confidence has collapsed on Iraq, but there is a lot of collateral damage, producing a strong desire for change. Whether it is the vote or job approval or personal favorability, Bush has become a 47 percent president at best.”

Bush’s goal of a stable, non-threatening Iraq seems further away. Hence White House Derby this week gives Kerry a small lead, based on Bush’s Iraq troubles and the apparent lack so far of a Karl Rove strategy to master them.

Kerry’s most important event this week was his meeting in Washington with maverick candidate Ralph Nader.

The meeting was more remarkable for what was not discussed than for what was. Among the subjects apparently omitted: Iraq (Nader calls for withdrawal of U.S. troops, Kerry opposes “premature withdrawal”); Nader’s role in televised debates this fall; and any pending Democratic plans to foil efforts to get Nader’s name on state ballots.

The U.S. entanglement in Iraq has provided Nader with a far more compelling rationale for his candidacy than he had in 2000. That may be one reason Nader’s poll numbers are as good as they are.

Amid the gloomy news for Bush there was contrarian data indicating the president is making a race of it in states where, if history is any guide, he should not be competitive. In a poll by Quinnipiac University, released Thursday, Kerry and Bush were nearly in a statistical dead heat among registered voters in New Jersey. Forty-six percent of the respondents said they'd vote for Kerry, 43 percent chose Bush, and 5 percent went for Nader. Al Gore carried New Jersey four years ago with 56 percent to Bush's 40 percent. No GOP presidential candidate has won the state since 1988.

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